As everyone already knows, Ofsted have published a draft of the new Inspection Framework which is currently undergoing a process of consultation. Amazingly, one of the most contentious aspects of the document is the definition given to learning:

Learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. However, transfer to long-term memory depends on the rich processes described above.[1] In order to develop understanding, pupils connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. Pupils also need to develop fluency and unconsciously apply their knowledge as skills. This must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts. Inspectors will be alert to unnecessary or excessive attempts to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts. School Inspection Handbook, Draft for Consultation, p. 44. [emphasis in original]

The concern seems to stem from the fact that some of the wording in this passage is very similar to the wording of Kirschner et al’s influential 2006 paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: “Learning … is defined as a change in long-term memory.” (p. 75) and later:

What are the instructional consequences of long-term memory? In the first instance and at its most basic, the architecture of long-term memory provides us with the ultimate justification for instruction. The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77) [my emphasis]

If the link wasn’t immediately obvious, the Overview of Research published by Ofsted makes it completely transparent:

Learning is at least in part defined as a change in long-term memory. As Sweller et al (2011)[2] have pointed out, ‘if nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned’, although there are, of course, other aspects to learning. It is, therefore, important that we use approaches that help pupils to integrate new knowledge into the long-term memory and make enduring connections that foster understanding. [emphasis added]

To my mind all this seems suitably caveated, possibly even overly cautious. Ofsted are clear that their definition of learning “must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts” and they allow that “there are … other aspects to learning”. If anything, I’d go further than this and say that whatever these “other aspects of learning” might be, if they don’t produce changes in long-term memory then it’s hard to argue for their utility.

And in fact, this view has represented the consensus for well over a century. The observation that memory and learning are broadly synonymous goes back to the dawn of experimental psychology as a discipline. William James’ in Talks to Teachers (1899) argued that memory is “explained as a result of the association of ideas.” which as he goes on to explain is very similar to the way we currently think of schema formation in long-term memory. Hermann Ebbinghaus in Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (1885) says that “memory, is to be taken here in its broadest sense, including Learning, Retention, Association and Reproduction.” It is now something of a commonplace to point out that learning is impossible without also remembering.

The other popular criticism of Ofsted definition of learning is that it is derived from cognitive load theory (CLT) and, in the words of Dame Alison Peacock, the head of the Chartered College, the theory “is not research based on school-age children”. Although the definition is indeed central to CLT the claim the theory isn’t based on school age children is plain wrong. John Sweller, the academic who first formulated the theory, weighed in to point out that more than three-quarters of the research supporting CLT had come from school children with the rest coming from apprentices and university students:

Most of the data from school children are based on secondary school children but a large proportion (let’s say about 1/3) tested primary school children. We are talking of several hundred experiments and several thousand school children. Furthermore, I’m only talking of papers with me as a co-author. If we count all papers using cognitive load theory, we are likely to have many thousands of school children who have been tested from around the world.

So much for that.

Now, to be clear, this the definition of learning chosen by Ofsted is not the one I prefer. Although I think it’s accurate to say that unless children can remember what they have learned (a change in LTM) then they can’t really be said to have learned it, I prefer the definition offered by Soderstrom and Bjork (2015):

The primary goal of instruction should be to facilitate long-term learning—that is, to create relatively permanent changes in comprehension, understanding, and skills[3] of the types that will support long-term retention and transfer.

I usually express this as, “Learning is the long-term retention of knowledge and the ability to transfer it to new contexts.”

Within this definition, ‘retention’ is concerned with the durability of performance: can we still do tomorrow what we’re able to do today? ‘Transfer’ is a more contentious concept but in this context it’s bout flexibility: can we do elsewhere what we can do here? What makes this definition especially useful is the way it’s contrasted with ‘performance’: “what we can observe and measure is performance, which is often an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place.” The fact that current performance can be unreliable is one of the central issues in teaching: just because children can provide an answer of perform a task in the here and now does not mean they will be able to do so elsewhere and later.

That said, I can see the appeal of the pithier statement from Kirschner et al but this broader definition seems likely to please more people and require less explanation. However, there seems no sensible way to argue that it’s possible “to create relatively permanent changes in comprehension, understanding, and skills of the types that will support long-term retention and transfer” without making alterations in long-term memory.

My suggestion is simply that Ofsted could overcome some of the pointless definitional quibbling by adding this strand of research into their overview. The fact that the Soderstrom and Bjork paper is missing seems a glaring oversight.

[1] See Section 168 pp. 43-44 which reads as follows:

Research and inspection evidence suggest that the most important factors in how the curriculum is taught and assessed are that:

  • teachers have expert knowledge of the subjects that they teach and, where they do not, they are supported to address these gaps so that pupils are not disadvantaged by ineffective teaching
  • teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and promoting appropriate discussion
  • teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively, identifying and correcting misunderstandings
  • teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently
  • teachers use assessment to help pupils embed and use knowledge fluently, develop their understanding, and not simply memorise disconnected facts
  • the subject curriculum that classes follow is designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory; it is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and towards defined end points
  • teachers use assessment to check pupils’ understanding in order to inform teaching.

[2] The reference here is slightly confusing as the only paper in the bibliography that matches Sweller 2011 is this one: J Sweller, ‘Cognitive load theory’, in ‘Psychology of Learning and Motivation’, Volume 55, 2011, pp. 37–76. This wasn’t coauthored so the “et al” is incorrect. I haven’t read the paper as it’s behind a paywall so cannot verify that this is, in fact, the source of the quote. However, as we can see, it is a direct quote from Kirschner et al 2006.

[3] Regular readers will know I’m not really happy with the word ‘skills’. I see skill as the product of knowledge and practice as explained here. As such I tend to leave the word out of my definition.